“Knight to f5.”
Yale man Dex Webster stared confusedly at the chess board. Sweat began to moisten his white collar. “Who is this high school kid anyways,” he wondered. “Who does he think he is to offer a sacrifice at this point in the game? Most worryingly of all, what does the kid see that I don’t?”
The room was uncomfortably quiet, but Webster didn’t notice. On the other side of the board a teenaged phenom tensely awaited the next move.
“Pawn takes knight on f5.”
And that’s when the kid took the driver’s seat. Up and down the board he ran his opponent, not guessing Webster’s next move, knowing Webster’s next move. The highschooler from New Orleans had his man in an intellectual vice grip, and there was no getting out of it. Soon enough the match was over. National Master Dex Webster had lost and some kid in sweatpants had just moved on to the Louisiana state finals.
Meet Tommy Watson, University of Dallas class of ’25 and chess champ of the Bayou.
Watson, hailing from the backwoods of Louisiana, is a Cajun at heart.
“Well,” he said, “let’s put it this way. I was trekking through the swamp one day and I caught a gator.”
And his Cajunness doesn’t stop there. Watson’s family has dwelt in the Mississippi delta for decades. One of his uncles almost drowned in the swamp, and for many years Watson lived just a few miles from the Duck Dynasty.
Naturally, this begs the question: why is Watson so good at chess and not duck hunting? Is chess actually a big deal in the redneck hollers off the mighty Mississippi? Do old men sit on their front porches down there, playing chess as well as plucking the banjo?
Is it all God, guns and chess down in the Bayou?
“No. It’s not. I actually didn’t play chess till I was a freshman in highschool. Before that I was obsessed with fishing. Things changed when I visited LSU,” Watson said.
And that’s when Watson launched into an iconic coming-of-age story. It had it all. Swamp boy goes to college town, falls in love, and returns as a chess genius.
On the hallowed grounds of LSU (Go Tigers!), young Watson was your average small town freshman on a class trip. Up and down the campus he wandered, gazing at the buildings and the views, always careful to stay right behind his guide.
“And then this dude yells at me,” Watson recalls. The guy had a hungry look in his eyes and was sitting at a card table he’d set up on the sidewalk. Eager to please, Watson hustled over.
“It was the president of the LSU chess club and he wanted to play me,” he said. “He kicked my ass.”
Apparently, the president didn’t go easy on the prospie. In fact, it was a humiliating experience for Watson. That day he left LSU vowing to never be beaten like that again.
“The whole car ride home I was playing online chess.”
By the time Watson had returned home, chess was already an obsession. A few days later it had replaced fishing as his favorite thing in the world. A few weeks later it was true love and Watson was quickly becoming a chess genius.
“A few months later I entered my first chess tournament,” Watson said, “I took first place and won $300. It was extremely gratifying.”
Sophomore year, Watson’s family moved to New Orleans and his career took another big step. It was there that he came under the tutelage of legendary chess guru Nick Matta.
Matta, an aging hippie, had been teaching for decades. In his early twenties, he’d broken nearly every rule in his search for transcendental experiences. But after a few years he realized that his greatest fulfillment came from conforming his mind to the logic of the chess board. And so Matta became an apostle of the game.
When he found Watson he knew he had something special on his hands. Every day for hours, Watson was pushed by his mentor to the utmost bounds of abstract thought. The training was grueling, but it paid off.
By his junior year of high school, Watson was the number one ranked highschooler in Louisiana. And by his senior year he was fighting to be the very best in state. That’s when he beat Webster.
“It was a brutal game, four hours long,” Watson said with a smile, “but yeah, that knight sacrifice was crazy.”
After beating the National Master, Watson moved on to the finals, only to find awaiting him the guru himself, Matta.
After a titanic clash, Watson lost.
“That was intense,” he surmised.
Matta and Watson are still master and pupil. But it may not be that way for long.
As Watson focuses on his studies here at UD — a double major in English and biology — he still finds time to keep growing as a chess player. You can often find him in front of the Cap Bar playing games blindfolded and accepting any who might challenge.
Play him some day. You’ll get your ass kicked of course, but who knows? It might turn into an all consuming obsession, and you too may become a chess genius.